MU Grape & Wine Institute Grows as Interest in Winemaking Grows

The collaboration between Plant Science & Technology and Food, Nutrition & Exercise Sciences fuel Mizzou's Grape and Wine Institute

Interest in Missouri winemaking exploded during the coronavirus pandemic and the University of Missouri Grape and Wine Institute (GWI) has responded to meet the demand.

The GWI is a collaborative partnership between the Missouri wine and grape industry and the University of Missouri. The Missouri Wine and Grape Board provides guidance and oversight to ensure that GWI fulfills its responsibilities. GWI provides information and advice on all issues related to viticulture and enology. Viticulture is the cultivation and harvesting of grapes for winemaking. Enology is the science of wine and winemaking.

There are 130 wineries in Missouri with several being large and well-established. More than 100 of Missouri’s wineries are small and/or recent startups.

In 2022, the MU Grape and Wine Institute hired Stephan Sommer, an extension enology leader to join Dean Volenberg, who has been extension leader of GWI’s viticulture program for the past eight years. Volenberg’s appointment is a collaborative effort of the Grape and Wine Institute (GWI) and Plant Sciences Extension.

“Stephan brings a wealth of knowledge and practical applied experience in the realm of winemaking, which has provided Missouri winemakers a resource to address technical questions in the winemaking process,” said Volenberg.

Volenberg is conducting research at Mizzou and elsewhere in the state on interspecific wine grape cultivars and advanced grape breeder selections.

“Some of the more interesting, advanced breeder selections include loose-clustered Vignoles, a white berried selection from a cross of Norton x Cabernet sauvignon and a cold-hardy red cultivar with genetic contributions from Cabernet franc and Zinfandel. The research documents viticultural characteristics of each cultivar or breeder selection,” said Volenberg. “Stephan will make wine from these cultivars and advanced breeder selections to be compared to current industry standards — with the goal to find new promising cultivars or advanced breeder selections that perform well in the vineyard and also produce outstanding wine.”

“I am excited to work in Missouri because of the state’s incredible history as a wine-growing region,” said Sommer. “I find myself in a team that is very well connected to the industry also beyond the borders of Missouri. Dean has been leading the viticulture side for years and truly understands the needs and the potential which is a great help for me.”

Through his extension efforts, Sommer is holding trainings for those new to winemaking and is educating consumers about Missouri wines.

“I see great potential in the growth of Missouri’s wine industry,” said Sommer. He believes that growth can best take place through community engagement and activities with a ‘buy local – drink local’ focus.

“Missouri’s wine industry can learn from craft brewers, such as those in North Carolina where I previously worked, that invite families for activities involving food, music and community,” said Sommer.

Sommer said his efforts include helping winemakers, whether start-ups or established, improve the quality of their wines.

“We have to serve the market here in Missouri; what consumers want when it comes to wine,” he said.

Two projects Sommer is focused on for the Grape and Wine Institute are a service lab for anyone in the state to submit their wine samples for analysis, and a wine quality alliance where samples will be taste-tested and feedback given.

“Missouri was one of the leading wine producers in the nation in pre-Prohibition times,” said Sommer. “The state was also instrumental in breeding and selecting cultivars (that were then lost during Prohibition) and supplying plant material to other regions and countries. Missouri was known for wine and I would like to bring that back to public perception – to bring Missouri’s wine industry back to its pre-Prohibition glory.”

The Grape and Wine Institute hosts a yearly conference. The next Show Me Grape and Wine Conference is March 1 to 2 in Columbia, Mo.